Sometimes you think you’ve completely figured out an artist, especially when you possess all 32 of his studio albums, plus most, if not all, of his many live recordings, compilations, boxed sets, film scores and reissues. But the vast imagination of a musician such as Elvis Costello can never be exhausted—it threatens to exhaust you.
Talking with Costello in advance of his May 13 concert at the Palms—who throughout his 35-year career has used inside-joke pseudonyms (Little Hands of Concrete, Napoleon Dynamite)—can be a bit draining. One has to mentally keep up with his encyclopedic and obscure knowledge of pop music, which spans centuries, genres and nationalities. His songs are chock-full of references within references. Consider the Tin Pan Alley-style “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” from National Ransom (released last November). On the surface, it’s about a singer waiting at a station, mulling his broken life. Scratch deeper and you realize the song is about a Jimmie Rodgers (the first country music star) impersonator touring Northern England. Scratch deeper and the song’s setting alludes to a famous Rodgers’ tune, “Waiting on a Train.” Layers wrapped in meanings inside metaphors.
Still, Costello, who started out as an English punk with 1977’s My Aim Is True, insists the games aren’t crucial. It’s catharsis we should draw from “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” a story of an artist whose livelihood collapses as new forms of music emerge.
“We had more good records by American musicians than good radio in England in my day,” he says during a recent phone chat. “Growing up, we often heard American pop reinterpreted by traveling English singers. My generation would’ve developed into less interesting musicians if it weren’t for these cover versions. You often find that people who play vivid music live far away from where the music originated.”
Like, for instance, Costello. These days he persists in vividly exploring American roots music, an interest he first shared with 1986’s dark protest record King of America and revisited with 2009’s sweeter Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, both produced by T-Bone Burnett in Nashville. Burnett returns for National Ransom as do many musicians with whom Costello has collaborated over the years. Together they make Ransom the grittiest, most varied music of Costello’s already hyper-eclectic career, blending Americana, ragtime and early rock. However, National Ransom’s red-hot heart comprises the Sugarcanes, a hard-core unit of bluegrass pickers that supplies the technical firepower, particularly on the song “Dr. Watson, I Presume,” about eminent North Carolina musician Doc Watson—not Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick.
“Although it could be,” laughs Costello. “Maybe I’ll write that song, too. In any case, it’s a fantastic tale. I’d seen Doc perform 20 years ago in—all of places—Detroit, but never met him until we played MerleFest five years ago. He related to me the incredible story of his life, and I took parts of it and made up others to create this mysterious riddle-type song. It’s hardly sentimental; his attitude isn’t like that.”
Sometimes songs come out literal, Costello says. Other times they’re unreal. But nothing says a song has to be exactly what it represents. Music can be like a painting; it won’t offer much realism at first, but gradually its meaning reveals itself.
And just because Costello hasn’t written a song with Las Vegas in the title doesn’t mean he hasn’t included his experiences here in his more than 400 songs. He insists he has written down many Vegas moments in notebooks in the way an author might jot down observations for the purpose of writing a novel or stage script or screenplay.
“I’ve never addressed Las Vegas directly in a song, that’s probably true,” he admits. “But off the top of my head, I can tell you the first scene in ‘American Without the Tears,’ a song that perhaps defines King of America, happened in a Vegas lounge. But for the sake of that song, I had to move the whole story to New Orleans.”
His good friend Elton John continues to play extended engagements in Las Vegas. Is there any chance that King Elvis might do his own a run of dates at a hotel-casino?
“No one has suggested it to me,” he says, chuckling at the notion. “You know, that’s what my father did for years, and it’s a very daunting occupation. When most dads were coming home from the office, my dad headed to his office—the [big-band] dance floor. People think showbiz is always a lot of fun, and it can be. But it’s more often very arduous. I admire actors who can go onstage and do a role for six months and present it every night as if it’s the first time they’ve uttered those words.”
No matter who he performs for—Barack Obama (as he did when the President presented Sir Paul McCartney with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at the White House) or fans at the Pearl at the Palms—Costello says his music shouldn’t be considered “weighty.” Even if, he confesses, the music of National Ransom is meant to evoke the music of “another Gilded Age gone sour and robbed blind by the banks”—the Roaring ’20s crashing into the Great Depression.
“The things we musicians do are, in the grand scheme, frivolous,” Costello laments. “But we each have our thoughts, our creativity, and a responsibility to make things better, even if for just a moment. That’s all I’m out to do.”